“League of Denial”: The NFL’s “Inconvenient Truth”

The NFL’s stonewalling of the link between football-related concussions and severe, later-in-life brain damage (and the league’s attacks on the whistleblowers who tried to bring the link to light) was laid bare in PBS’ must-watch Frontline documentary, “League of Denial”.  The documentary, which aired on Tuesday night can be viewed online here (there’s also a book, of the same name, written by ESPN investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada). The NFL’s reaction was eerily similar to the reaction of climate deniers and Big Oil/Coal to “An Inconvenient Truth”:  Powerful Business Attacks Whistleblowers (PBAW)! 

When Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” opened in 2006, Climate Deniers and Big Energy went on offense, big time, to attack Mr. Gore.  They used Red Herring-type distractions (i.e. Gore flies a private plane to speaking gigs!) and patently untrue statements (Climate change is not observed, it’s only the result of computer models!) and shouted them through a Big Money megaphone.  Those faux-arguments (unfortunately still in use today) took attention away from the central fact brought forth in the film (a fact Big Energy was well aware of before the movie came out):  Climate Change is real, is a serious threat to life, human and otherwise, and is largely human caused.

League of Denial

The Deniers and Big Energy could not argue the science so they did anything they could to sow doubt about the reality and severity of Climate Change.  Why?  The real Inconvenient Truth for Big Energy is that for humanity to have a chance to stave off the worst affects of Climate Change, their game (burning their fossil fuel-based assets) has to be lost hopefully sooner if not later.  They don’t want to lose (surprised?).  So they added the Powerful Business Attacks Whistleblowers (PBAW) play to their playbook.

PBAW is not a new play at all.  Big Energy/Climate Change Deniers pulled their PBAW strategies and tactics straight from Big Tobacco and their decades-long efforts to plant a “maybe” answer about the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, as well as doubts about the addictive nature of nicotine.  In fact, now we know that Big Tobacco and Big Energy/Climate Change Deniers are often the same individuals–as this Climate Rocks story about a peer-reviewed research study that exposes an Axis of Anti-Science (Big Tobacco, Climate Deniers, the Tea Party and Fox News (are you surprised?)) demonstrates.  Seriously, READ THE CLIMATE ROCKS STORY!!

Climate Denial

Billboard mocking concern about Climate Change, funded by climate change denier, The Heartland Institute

So it was with real sadness (but not surprise) that I watched League Of Denial on Tuesday.  I mean I knew the backstory–that the NFL didn’t want the link between concussions and brain damage to get out and they did some unsavory things to keep the lid on as long as it could.  But the extent to which it used the PBAW playbook in the same way Big Tobacco/Big Energy-Climate Deniers did was stunningly perverse.

  • Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue went before Congress in 2006 to say that the concussion-brain damage link was a creation of “the media” (Blame A Whistleblower Part I!)
  • The league discredited the physician who discovered, through autopsy analysis, the link between concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE (Blame A Whistleblower Part II!).
  • At a 2009 congressional hearing, current league commissioner Roger Goodell said he didn’t know if there was a real link, that he was waiting for the science (sow doubt but show concern!).

Other ways the league denied the crisis are detailed in this Mother Jones piece.

The idea that the NFL is in a league with Big Tobacco and Big Energy is just sad–there’s no better word.  The NFL knew about the Inconvenient link and should’ve been looking after their players, not solely their business interests.  Of course Big Energy knew about its Inconvenient link and should’ve done the right thing, too.  But I expect more from the NFL–I guess I was wrong to do so.

Tobacco Deniers

Big Tobacco CEOs offer the oath before testifying before Congress, denying addictive nature of nicotine, 1997.

I say this as I grapple with my own football-related Inconvenient Truths.  I mean I LOVE FOOTBALL and have since I got hooked on Joe Namath and the Jets when I was 7 (a long time ago).  Part of what I love is the violent nature of the game but that’s hard to square with the concern I have for players who get paralyzed from spinal cord injury or, as demonstrated by League of Denial, suffer serious brain damage.  Right now, I admit I’m addicted to the game and will watch my alma mater, Rutgers vs. Louisville tonight, and will look in on Giants-Bears (Heck, I’m going to be up with a somewhat lighthearted post soon that updates my July “Who Will Have A Better Season: The Jets or The Green Movement” story). I will think about League of Denial during the games.  Will it lessen my ardor for the game?  Maybe not right away but this is an evolving story.

One thing I can say for sure is that I hope, because the concussion-brain damage link is in the open, the NFL stops the stonewalling for good and does as much as it can to make an inherently brutal game as safe as possible.  They’ve made some good first steps but the game has just started.

8 thoughts on ““League of Denial”: The NFL’s “Inconvenient Truth””

  1. I’m not a football fan (there, I said it on a sports blog) but, that being said, I understand the passionate devotion this particular sport inspires in millions of Americans. That’s why it is so important for sports fans to view this documentary and see it in the context of how individuals participate passively in terrible things when they don’t look closely at the sources of the information they rely on. In other words, remember that big oil (like big tobacco) has an agenda. The NFL systematically denied problems the way we all tend to skirt issues related to the environment. It is easier to do things they way they’ve always been done — burning fossil fuels, etc. and to make fun of the people who sound the alarm (like the docs on the documentary) than it is to take a serious look at the evidence.

  2. One thing I forgot to mention is that “League of Denial” did incredible (for PBS) ratings: 2.2 million viewers. I’m sure the ratings were goosed by the high profile exit by ESPN from the documentary’s production about 1-2 months ago (the Fainaru brothers, both ESPN reporters, were featured prominently in the piece). Here’s a link to a NYT story about the ratings (today’s paper): http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/10/sports/football/by-shunning-concussion-documentary-espn-gives-it-a-lift.html?ref=sports&_r=0

  3. Unfortunately, the public is in denial as well. We need to raise awareness. The new rules for the NFL, to protect the players, get a lot of criticism for excessive play stoppage. Similarly, the public does not really want to believe in the seriousness of global warming, thinking that one person and one car ride can’t possibly make a difference.

    1. Thx for the comment, John. I think with football, the public is conflicted with–itself. They KNOW the danger from vicious hits to the head…and know even more now due to news reports and suicides and “League of Denial”…BUT they LOVE the viciousness and don’t want that taken out of the game. One of my friends, as devout an NFL fan as there is, says he’s no longer going to watch because the game is too soft. TOO SOFT?? I mean, what he’s saying is he wants to see guys concuss themselves. And I think he reflects the feelings of lots of fans. On climate change, the problem is that there’s nothing as dramatic as great hits and Junior Seau’s suicide. It’s harder to generate concern about something that’s seen as 2-3 generations from coming to fruition (despite the real world affects that are happening now).

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kim. Let’s hope the NFL will do more but I wonder what their incentive will be now that the retired players’ class action lawsuit about the NFL’s hiding of evidence related to concussions was settled to the tune of $765 million. With the threat of a lawsuit gone, will the NFL continue to aggressively work to make the game less damaging? And, if they do and viewership declines, will they reverse course? The game is far from over.

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